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PokerStars and NFL: A Marriage That Kind of, Sort of, Almost Happened

In Europe, seeing the name of an online gambling site plastered across the chest of a football player is commonplace. Nobody thinks anything of it. But could you imagine what it would be like to see the same thing on an American football player’s jersey? Or even beyond that, an online gambling site owning a National Football League (NFL) franchise?

According to Nolan Dalla, he had this very idea almost a decade ago.

In a recent post on his blog, the World Series of Poker Media Director recounted a story from when he worked as Director of Communications in the mid-aughts. It was early 2006 and New Orleans, as well as much of the Gulf Coast, had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina a few months earlier. The city was just a disaster. In the meantime, the city’s NFL franchise, the Saints, had to play its 2005 home games in both Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and San Antonio, Texas (and even played a “home” game against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium) while its stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, was being repaired.

Nolan Dalla Image courtesy: nolandalla.com

Nolan Dalla
Image courtesy: nolandalla.com

It was an awful season, one in which the Saints won just three games against thirteen losses. Natural-disaster tragedy aside, this was not even an abnormal year for the Saints, as it was historically one of the worst franchises in the NFL. From its inaugural season in 1967 through 2005, the Saints went 237-352-5. It took the team 21 years to have its first winning season and it did not win its first playoff game until 2000. My childhood landed squarely in the midst of those awful years; to me and most other football fans, the team was better known as the “Aints” than the Saints. Despite all this, fans still enthusiastically supported the team.

In 2005 and extending into 2006, controversy brewed as there were rumblings — loud rumblings — that Saints owner Tom Benson was looking to move the team out of New Orleans, possibly to San Antonio. Of course, this angered the Saints fan base, as they not only did not want to lose their team, but also felt that Benson was taking advantage of the unfortunate Katrina situation to find a way out of town.

This is where Dalla’s story begins. At that time, PartyPoker was the online poker industry’s big dog, with PokerStars number two. It might be hard to picture now, but PokerStars was far from being the dominant goliath it is now. It was the underdog, looking up at PartyPoker, which had yet to exit the U.S. market. Dalla describes the culture:

Accordingly, we at PokerStars were always encouraged to be creative. While the company culture was extremely conservative (why take risks when you’re making a million bucks a day in rake?), among the inner circle and within closed-door marketing meetings, there was no such thing as a “bad idea.” We weren’t exactly Golden Palace, the gambling site that resorted to all kinds of shameless self-promotion. We had our standards. Given company founder and majority owner Isai Scheinberg’s highly competitive nature and drive to somehow surpass rival PartyPoker, we all knew such a leap would take something really huge to eclipse their massive numbers. Even though the PokerStars site offered the best software and customer service in the business, the softer games over at PartyPoker made them nearly impossible to catch. Hell, even many of the PokerStars staff, myself included, played almost exclusively on PartyPoker.

So Dalla thought of something. What if PokerStars made a serious offer to buy the New Orleans Saints? The estimated market price of the franchise was $600 million at the time, a price PokerStars could afford. Dallas proposed that PokerStars issue a press release announcing its intentions to purchase the team while at the exact same time presenting Benson with the $600 million offer.

The thing was, Nolan Dalla never expected the offer to be both accepted by Benson and approved by the NFL. There was no way, he thought, that the NFL would allow an overseas online gambling company to own one of its teams (I won’t go into the hypocrisy of the NFL being against gambling here). Dalla’s idea was to use the offer as a marketing ploy. In his words:

Never mind what our main rival was doing on television on something called The Travel Channel. Our offer would be the lead story on ESPN’s SportsCenter — watched nightly by the coveted sweet spot consisting of 18-35 year old males. We’d make the “talking heads” shows. I suspect it would even make mainstream news and expose us to an audience that didn’t know online poker even existed. It certainly would have been a front page story in the Wall Street Journal.

Even though the deal would almost immediately be shot down by the NFL’s corporate office, what would PokerStars get out of it? Plenty. Try this on for size — perhaps $15 to 20 million in free publicity. Forget Mike Sexton raising a champagne glass and inviting everyone over to the “poker party.” PokerStars was about to be playing in the real major leagues of sports and business, and would be destined to get a whole lot of attention once the announcement went public.

Dalla typed up his proposal and sent it directly to PokerStars’ top dog, Isai Scheinberg. He also came up with a follow-up plan to announce that PokerStars would keep the Saints in New Orleans, the ultimate goodwill gesture. “PokerStars was going to come out of this looking like heroes,” he said.

In the end, while Scheinberg said he liked the idea, he passed on it. Dalla wrote that he does not know exactly why PokerStars never moved forward, but he wasn’t particularly surprised. The offer was going to be real; if, by some stroke of luck, the deal went through, PokerStars would have to run an NFL team. That might not have been something leadership wanted to do. Additionally, Scheinberg might not have wanted that mainstream exposure. “There was always the risk that with more scrutiny aimed our direction, we might become targets,” Dalla wrote. “We could even be shut down, which is precisely what happened — although that course of events didn’t fully go into effect until five years later when PokerStars was eventually forced out of the U.S. market entirely.”

Of course, since then, New Orleans has been one of the most powerful teams in the NFL, posting five double-digit win seasons in the past eight years and winning Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.

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